When the 13th Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit recently took place in Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his closing remarks said, “The successful holding of the summit is a manifestation of the desire and commitment of the member States to transform the ECO into a vibrant regional bloc”. This statement surely indicated towards positive outcomes of Pakistan’s pro-active foreign policy in the recent times.
Head of the States of all members participated except Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani. The relations between Kabul and Islamabad are once again bitter; with Pakistan bombing alleged sanctuaries of militant inside Afghanistan in retaliation to the recent Lahore and Sindh bomb attacks. In reaction, Kabul called Pakistani representative in Afghanistan and registered a strong protest. Furthermore, incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also abstained from taking part in the ECO summit.
Among those who participated in the summit, Turkish President Erdogan met Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the summit. According to reports coming out of the meeting, the Turkish President reiterated his stance on Kashmir dispute, which supports the Pakistani narrative. Furthermore, Erdogan stressed on the Pakistani government to take all out action against the remaining FETO, the Gulen movement, members. Turkish General Hulusi Akar, who was also on an official visit to Pakistan in connection with the ECO summit, called on General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, in Rawalpindi, discussing issues of mutual interests.
The primary aim of the ECO summit was to promote regional trade, connectivity and infrastructure. Moreover the bloc also aims to operate in the footsteps of the European Union. For Islamabad the presence of founding members of ECO, Iran and Turkey, was crucial as absence of either of them would have given a severe blow to the entire process.
Iran’s geo-political and energy rich locations makes it the building block for any regional trade cooperation, and thus its presence sent positive signals to policy makers in Islamabad. Iran’s location would also come useful in the ECO train project, which all the members hope would be initiated soon. Such a project would not only aid in increasing trade activity between the members, but also facilitate cross cultural exchanges.
According to many analysts, ECO has more benefits compared to other regional blocs especially SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). Two powerful members of SAARC, India and Pakistan, stand in the way of effective cooperation between seven members. On the other hand, there is no such divide in the ECO bloc. But having said that, ECO is facing several hurdles. The trade volume between Pakistan Iran and Afghanistan is very small. Furthermore, the political resolve of these governments is not backed by the businessmen and investors who prefer trade with existing customers in other countries. The other obstacle is mainly language and communication. Our businessmen should be ready to learn Persian and Turkish which is widely spoken in the ECO states, compared to English which is a global language of communication used by our businessmen.
In terms of trade cooperation, the Economic Cooperation Organization Free Trade Agreement or ECOTA agreement was reached on 17 July 2003 at the ECO summit in Islamabad whereby a free trade region was formed between the member states. In the recently concluded Summit at Islamabad, all members reiterated their resolve to implement the ECOTA agreement in letter and spirit. If all member states implement such a free trade agreement, removing all trading nuances in the way, it could serve as a major stepping stone for trade and progress in the region. Moreover, ECO is also a suitable platform for improving bilateral relations between the member states.
Shortly after the successful summit, Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Honordost called on Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Bajwa, at the military General Headquarters. The meeting between the two was vital as relations between Tehran and Islamabad are facing several strains, primarily because of the border issues. Iranian border guards occasionally fires mortar shells inside Pakistani territory, with Pakistan not retaliating to avoid any conflict. Both sides have agreed on improving border mechanisms for information and intelligence sharing. Furthermore, Iranian Ambassador appreciated Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extended its support to recently launched operation Radd ul Fasad against terrorists in the country.
According to many analysts, the Afghan president’s decision of not attending the summit was a serious mistake, which risked his country’s regional political isolation. Ashraf Ghani’s policy towards Pakistan has been criticized by many, while some have called him less diplomatic than his predecessor Hamid Karzai. The region is home to immense natural resources and holds massive economic opportunities. If the pledges made by ECO members in Islamabad become a reality, then lives of millions of people in the region will improve drastically.